Wednesday, July 25, 2007

On June 28th, 1914 Archduke Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and his wife Sophie were shot to death in Sarajevo by Gavrilo Princip. During the next month, that assassination would spark World War I, in part due to a comedy of tragic errors, including Serbian troops mistakenly crossing the Danube and stumbling across the border with Austro-Hungary. A massive mobilization of the Great Powers followed and by then it was too late to restrain the dogs of war.

Just a few years earlier, conventional wisdom argued that full-scale war in Europe was no longer conceivable. The restraints of closely linked economies made war too expensive to wage and the intermingled ruling royal families aligned by marriage and blood had no grounds for fighting one another. That case was famously and wrongly made in British Nobel Prize-winning economist Sir Norman Angell’s The Grand Illusion that captivated fancy European salons in 1910.

The causes of World War I are thankfully dead and gone. No secret treaties bind great powers to come to the aid of lesser states. Indeed, far fewer armies exist today than existed nearly a century ago, and a major enemy — jihadist extremism — does not even possess one. Yet, with real and potential crises looming from the west coast of Africa to the east coast of Indonesia, the possibility of at least one or more of these danger spots exploding is real. And many leaders could become a 21st-century equivalent of the archduke, ranging from Iraqi Shi’ite cleric Ali al-Sistani to Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf.

Despite U.S. generals claiming to have achieved “real progress” on the ground in Iraq, the situation is close to if not in extremis. Political reconciliation, a hydrocarbon law and de-Ba’athification remain distant goals. Power and oil production, unemployment, potable water, sewerage, medical and educational facilities and other metrics crucial to societal well-being remain unsatisfactory. A political act as powerful as the destruction of the Golden Mosque in Samarra a year and a half ago could rip the fragile state asunder.

Palestine and Lebanon are also in or close to civil war, with Fatah and Hamas in a life-and-death power struggle and the Siniora government facing a similar test against Hezbollah. Unconfirmed reports filtering out of the Middle East predict an Israeli strike against Syria, possibly in the Bekaa Valley to take on Hezbollah, at a time when the popularity of its Prime Minister Ehud Olmert makes President Bush look like a rock star.

Last week, Britain’s Guardian wrote that Vice President Dick Cheney was winning the political battle in Washington over taking out Iran’s budding nuclear power capacity with a military strike, a rumor that has been circulating for some time. Weekend elections have not clarified what Turkey might do should Kurdistan move closer to independence or if a major conflict and violence erupt there, as in much of Iraq. The recent suicide bombings that killed nearly 100 in Kirkuk raise the stakes that such violence could spill over.

Afghanistan very much remains the invisible war — out of sight and out of mind. However, conditions continue to deteriorate. Reform of the civil sector has not advanced. Poppy production and corruption continue to swell. And as more Afghan civilians die in friendly-fire or collateral-damage incidents, hearts and minds migrate away from our side to the Taliban and local tribal chiefs.

Although not in the greater Middle East, Nigeria is vulnerable to an Islamic or jihadist-led revolution. Possessing huge quantities of oil and natural gas, led by a new and untested president and a state where corruption is more than rampant, Nigeria’s stability cannot be taken for granted. Indeed, the opposite thinking should be driving contingency planning, especially as the new U.S. Africa Command stands up.

And then there is Pakistan, potentially the most dangerous place in the world. Gen. Musharraf holds on and does his best to support the United States in battling terror and al Qaeda. But make no mistake, the realities of Pakistan reveal cross-cutting loyalties, national interests that often diverge from America’s and a frightening influence of jihadist extremists and fundamentalists. These include thousands of madrassas teaching the most perverted views of Islam, all of which exist in the shadow of dozens of nuclear weapons.

Of course, there is no certainty (and perhaps not even a chance) that any or even one of these hot spots will detonate a regional explosion with potentially catastrophic consequences. Still, one can be concerned, if not worried. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff was worried by what his “gut” told him about possible terrorist attacks against America this summer and was promptly derided on the basis of his analysis. My mind — not my gut — asks in a broader context if what we are seeing today may be eerily reminiscent of July 1914 but in slow motion.

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